Agency works to coordinate Ukraine relief efforts by Catholic groups


ROME – When it comes to helping migrants and refugees fleeing conflicts, few have the experience of the Geneva-based International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC).

Through a coordinated response in collaboration with the bishops’ conferences around the world,  ICMC provides assistance and protection to vulnerable people on the move and advocates for sustainable solutions for refugees and migrants.

Founded in 1951 by Pope Pius XII, it is currently headed by Monsignor Robert Vitillo, who told Crux that the current exodus from Ukraine is arguably the fastest growing migration crisis in the world since World War II.

“I think that we can very safely say this is the largest situation of refugees and displaced people in Europe since World War II,” he said. “And it’s an interesting thing because as soon as we were founded, we became involved in helping the many refugees of the war who couldn’t go back to their own countries, so we helped them get resettled in the Americas, Australia and other parts of the world.”

People arrive by ferry at the Isaccea-Orlivka border crossing in Romania March 9, 2022, after fleeing from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than 2 million people have fled Ukraine since the Feb. 24 invasion of the East European nation. (Credit: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters via CNS.)

“We’re trying to share information with the bishops’ conferences and be of help to them,” he said. “Our office has launched a fundraising appeal among our private donors to ask them to support the work of the church in Ukraine and in the neighboring countries that are receiving the refugees.”

They have also been working closely with Catholic organizations such as the Jesuit Refugee Service and Caritas to try to make sure the response is coordinated and carried out in a collaborative way, which ensures that resources are not wasted.

Vitillo also said that the ICMC is doing “global advocacy” at the United Nations and the European Union to try to guarantee ceasefires for humanitarian corridors so that people can escape to safety, but also for “fair” policies in receiving and welcoming refugees.

“We were very pleased that the European Parliament has established temporary protection directives, so that persons coming from Ukraine could be received in those countries and be allowed to stay there for even up to three years if necessary,” he said, pointing out that the United States took a similar path.

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, the ICMC has been gathering information from the Ukrainian bishops conference and those of neighboring countries, and working with the section for migrants and refugees at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, in an attempt to “get information directly from the first responders, who often are the local churches.”

This exchange of information with international agencies is aimed at guaranteeing collaboration, and more importantly, that they know where to refer people to “if we’re getting needs that we’re not directly involved in” addressing. He gave the example of a number of American adoptive families who were in Ukraine when the war began. 

“They had all the legal permissions for the children to go back to the United States with them, but they had to wait for a mandatory 30-day trial period,” Vitillo said. They contacted him in the hopes that he could help them get out of the country.

Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, interim president of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, gives a blessing to Caritas workers during a visit to meet Ukrainian refugees arriving at the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, March 8, 2022. (Credit: Courtesy Magyar Kurír via CNS.)

Some of the children’s institutions moved to a safe zone, but now they are trying to see what’s the best way to keep those children and their families safe. Many needs are “surfacing” every day, hence the importance of Catholic organizations working in coordination, he said.

Vitillo also pointed out that there “has been a tremendous destruction in a very short time, not only the infrastructure, but especially the trauma and the suffering of the people,” and praised the outpouring of solidarity. The fact that this is a war that is happening in Europe leads to many being moved because “it is close to home,” but it is important that this solidarity continues because “we don’t know how long this crisis will last.”

On that note, he voiced concern over a single focus mentality, with the international community and the media focusing only on the ongoing war in Ukraine: “We shouldn’t forget all of those other long-term situations of conflict, and the terrible suffering of people throughout the world. It might be easier for the world’s media to focus on Ukraine, but let’s not forget all those others who are still suffering in Syria, in Yemen, and a long list of humanitarian emergencies.”

Reflecting on Pope Francis’ decision to send two cardinals to Ukraine, he argued that this “is a very significant step, especially because they are not simply going there to have diplomatic contacts, but, as the pope said, to listen to the refugees and their needs.”

Quoting the pontiff’s remarks after announcing that he would be sending Cardinals Konrad Krajewsky and Michael Czerny to the conflict zone, Vitillo pointed out that they are there not only to express the pope’s closeness but “that of the entire Christian community. This means that all of us are called to do whatever we can to respond to this situation. It’s very important that we pray for peace in this area and God could bring about that peace. But then we need to act, perhaps by making charitable donations to help those who are the first responders in those countries.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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